School > Learning

After a dramatically successful first year, the million-dollar question for the Sustainability Workshop is how to scale “up.”  Scale is something I have always struggled with as an educator, probably because I believe schools can scale their way right out of real learning.  Somewhere on the way up ‘school’ surpasses learning, with the result being an institution focused more on meeting its own needs instead of those of the students.  Sometimes by scaling up learning gets scaled out.

Schools can scale their way right out of learning when they begin to bureaucratize, to create lots of paperwork, schedules, checklists and rules.  While these might all be justified institutionally, all too often the tools become the task, making school an endless series of forms, rosters and checked boxes.  What makes possible the efficient processing of students can make real learning all but impossible.

I was struck by Michael Clapper’s recent post about the joy of making plans that  the teachers actually knew they could implement during the coming year.  There is something powerful in the idea that teachers could come together and lay out their own plans for the upcoming year based on the kind of students they wanted to see graduate the following spring.  These teachers celebrated this situation because they have  worked in schools where they were profoundly disempowered, where the the best laid plans have had to be thrown by the wayside.  They relish the freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, and in many ways are embarking on their own experiment in education.  Having reflected on last year, they are making their plans based on what did and did not work.  Some of it will inevitably not to work out as planned this year, but that’s part of the beauty of the Workshop Model- teachers and students get to try out their ideas and learn from their mistakes.

Bear in mind that these teachers do not yet know the students who will walk into the Workshop in September.  The curriculum will need to remain a bit loose so that it can be tailored to -and by- the students.   This will happen as the teachers come to know their students and vice-versa.   Talking to the first Workshop graduates, I was particularly taken by their insistence that having the teachers in the trenches with them fostered a level of trust unheard of in schools.  They were all in it together, becoming what the students regularly referred to as a “family.”

Which brings me back to scale.  How does one scale up “family?”  Or for that matter trust?   How does one scale up learning by making lots of mistakes?  Why is there such a press to scale things up?

Maybe a better question is whether one should or even can scale up authentic education.  Maybe instead of looking for the next educational silver bullet to scale up we should be working on scaling down education, on shrinking school back down to the size where the word family can actually mean something,where the decisions about learning get made in the classroom and school, where teachers and students can stop pretending that learning happens in fifty-two minute periods.